VOA White House correspondent Paris Huang spoke with John Kirby, National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications, on Friday about protests in China, the Chinese military, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Russian war in Ukraine.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
VOA: We’ll start with the protests happening in China right now, that the world is watching. So, the scale of the protests in China right now is something that we haven’t seen since the Tiananmen Square happened in 1989. The Chinese top security body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, (is) already calling resolutely (for a) crackdown. We’re also seeing some local cities already using tear gas on the protesters, arresting people as well. So will the (U.S. President Joe) Biden administration make it clear to China that if there’s a mass crackdown on protesters, there will be consequences?
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS JOHN KIRBY: We’ve been very clear and consistent, very public about it, too. About the right of peaceful protest, about the fundamental right for citizens, no matter whether they live in a democracy or an autocracy, to be able to freely assemble without fear, without intimidation, certainly without violence, to protest, to make their voices heard on issues that matter to them. And we’ve, again, we’ve been very, very consistent.
VOA: We’re also seeing, for example, with Iran cracking down on protesters, there’s sanctions against some of the officials going on there. And Tiananmen Square, that I just mentioned, after that, United States and some Western countries imposed sanctions on China. So would the Biden administration let China know that there will be consequences if you crack down on the White Paper Revolution?
Kirby: We’re watching this very, very closely. I don’t have any announcements to make. We’re watching this very closely. And our expectations are the same there as they are elsewhere around the world, you talked about Iran, which is to stand up for the right of people to peacefully protest.
VOA: You mentioned during the last briefing Tuesday that the president is monitoring the protests right now. And, although we see (Chinese President) Xi Jinping seems to be consolidating the power after the 20th Party Congress … we’ve also seen some protesters calling (for) Xi Jinping to step down, which is unthinkable in the past few years. So what is the president’s assessment of the protests now that they’ve been going on for a week? And how will this change the dynamic between President Biden and Xi Jinping? Right now, Xi Jinping doesn’t seem so solid on his power within China.
Kirby: Well again, we’re watching and monitoring these developments closely. The president is certainly staying apprised and informed about the protest activity in China, as he is about widespread protest activity elsewhere around the world. So we’re watching this very, very closely.
VOA: By watching closely, we know the U.S. and China communication channel had been reopened. Have the U.S. officials had a chance to talk to the Chinese counterparts regarding the protests and the COVID restrictions?
Kirby: Certainly through our embassy in Moscow, Ambassador (Nicholas) Burns has and does routinely talk.
VOA: The embassy in Beijing?
KIRBY: I’m sorry?
VOA: Ambassador in Beijing.
Kirby: And our ambassador in Beijing has and does relay our concerns to the Chinese government. Certainly, he’s been relaying concerns about American citizens that are in China in the midst of these protests. So we have that channel open, and Ambassador (to China) Burns is never shy about expressing our concerns. But again, we’re watching this closely. We want everybody to be able to freely assemble, express their views peacefully.
VOA: Going down to the China military power report that was announced by the DOD (Department of Defense). You have a very deep military background and experience, so can you tell us what, from your point of view, what the major takeaway from this report? What are the (most alarming) elements in this 2022 report to set it apart from the 2021 report?
Kirby: Well I think it’s important to remember a couple of things. It’s an annual report required by Congress, that’s one. Two, it’s based on 2021 information and analysis, so there is a time gap between the time it’s published and the end of the information that’s being analyzed.
All that said, the report lays bare what we have been saying consistently now over the last two years — that China’s military continues to grow and develop the kinds of capabilities that they are, obviously, continue to show a willingness to use to coerce and intimidate neighbors and some of our allies and partners in the region. But also to try to deny access by the U.S. military into areas of the Indo-Pacific.
And so what we’re going to do, in addition to being open and honest about what we’re seeing in the analysis, and this report lays it all very clearly, growing ballistic missile capabilities, growing integration between air, naval, ground forces. Building more and more ships at a faster rate.
Well, again, in addition to laying all that out, you’ll see if you look at our national security strategy, which also very transparently indicates that China remains a security challenge. The preeminent security challenge to the rules-based order.
A, because they have expressed an interest in breaking down that rules-based order, and B, because this is a country, and again the China military report states it clearly, has the resources and the capabilities to be able to challenge that rules-based order. And that is not in concert with our national security interests. It is not in concert with the national security interests of our allies and partners, not just in the region but around the world.
I mean, yesterday we had (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron here for a state visit. France is an Indo-Pacific power. France shares our concerns about China’s burgeoning military capabilities and their intentions to use those capabilities to secure their ends in the Indo-Pacific. So, again, we’ve put it in the national security strategy. It’s in the national defense strategy. The China military report, though old, certainly reinforces the level of concern that we have over what China is doing in the region.
It is important, to your point about the channels of communication, for all those reasons, it is that much more important that we have channels of communication with the Chinese so that we can reduce the risk of miscalculation particularly in the security landscape. The president was grateful for the three-hour-plus meeting he was able to have with President Xi. These are two men that know each other very, very well. They’ve spoken half a dozen times before this face-to-face meeting in Bali a week or so ago, and they were both able to lay on the table their concerns about not only the bilateral relationship, probably the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world right now, but also their broader concerns in the region.
And the president was very forthright about the security concerns that we have and about trying to make sure that those channels of communication stay open, again, so we can reduce the risk of miscalculation.
VOA: Talking about the channel of communication, just a couple of days ago, some Russian and Chinese fighter jets entered South Korea’s defense zone, without notice, took them by surprise, and Japan also said they were surprised. I’m just wondering, has the United States, through the communication channels, known this beforehand, especially as we have troops there in South Korea?
Kirby: I don’t think that we had advance knowledge of these particular air missions. But you saw that the South Koreans responded appropriately with an intercept of their own. This is exactly why these kinds of incidents, which are aggressive and certainly unhelpful to security and stability, but these are exactly why these incidents are why it’s important to keep channels of communication open from — at least from a military to military level.
And so, in the wake of (U.S. House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (in August), the Chinese military shut down some of those military channels of communication, and one of the outcomes of the meeting with President Xi was an agreement by both leaders to see if we can’t restart some of those venues, some of those vehicles for communication to include at the military level. And so, that was a positive outcome coming out of that.
President Xi, President Biden agreed to get their teams together to see if we can’t work on that, and I think the secretary of state (Antony Blinken) will be going to Beijing in the not-too-distant future to help move that process along.
VOA: Talking about what happened in South Korea, it seems like the Russians and Chinese are working together. What is your assessment on why are they doing this right now to United States allies?
Kirby:I think we need to be careful not to overstate. It’s not like there’s some grand alliance between Russia and China. In many ways, particularly in the military realm, it’s a partnership of convenience, not of deep trust and confidence or a strong set of shared principles and interests. They have exercised and operated together in the past. Certainly, we watch this as closely as we can. These are two countries who are not pursuing the same sort of shared interests, common interests that we do with our allies and partners in the region around the world. You’re talking about at least one of these partners, one of these countries, that has in an unprovoked way invaded a neighboring nation, Ukraine, and continues, as you and I speak here today, continues to attack civilian infrastructure and kill innocent Ukrainian people. So obviously we watch this closely.
VOA: In the military report, he also says that China continues its military pressure, but no sign of invading Taiwan immediately, which echoes what President Biden said in Bali. But with the protests in China right now, is it possible that we see China trying to divert that pressure outward by, you know, perhaps some military actions toward Taiwan. Does that change any calculation?
Kirby: I won’t speculate to Chinese intentions here. As I said, we stand up for peaceful protests. We don’t want to see any protesters intimidated, coerced or hurt in the simple process of freely assembling and stating their views. Separate and distinct from that, yes, President Biden had a chance to talk to President Xi about Ukraine.
We certainly would like to see China act in accordance with so much of the rest of the international community and overtly condemn what Mr. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is doing in Ukraine and do nothing to normalize Mr. Putin’s behavior or his activities, particularly there on the European continent. China has choices that they have to make. They have to determine where they want to be here in terms of history and how history regards their own behavior with respect to Mr. Putin. I would add, I would say, that we have not seen China provide any material, tangible military support to Mr. Putin.
VOA: I’m going to jump to Iran and Afghanistan questions. President Biden said yesterday (Thursday) at the press conference said the U.S. seeks to hold accountable for those responsible for the human rights abuses. However, we see Iran is already saying it will not cooperate with the fact-finding mission of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. So, what will the U.S. do right now? And any updates on the U.S. move to expel Iran from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women?
Kirby: We do not believe that Iran should be part of that commission, particularly concerning the way they’ve treated their own citizens particularly women, Iranian women. I don’t have an update for you on process there, at the U.N., but I can tell you that we are working this very, very hard with our allies and partners and our U.N. colleagues. and again, to not only hold the regime accountable, but to make it clear, the basic principle that we stand for, which is, again, peaceful protest.
VOA: On Afghanistan, we see that Chinese officials have met with the Taliban many times and have also criticized the U.S. policies. How do you see China-Taliban relations? Do you think that China is increasing its influence in Afghanistan and in the region?
Kirby: I won’t speak for Chinese foreign policy. We noted that they have met with Taliban figures. They should have to speak for why they’re doing that and what the intent is. It’s not clear that China has gone all in here in terms of supporting the Taliban.
Again, the Taliban has a choice. We’ve not recognized the Taliban in Afghanistan as the government. They say they want legitimacy. They say they want an opening up to the global economy. They say that they are willing to pursue reforms, social and economic, to earn that legitimacy, but that’s not what we’re seeing on the ground. We’re seeing them shut down access to education for young girls. We’re seeing a crackdown on civil and human rights, particularly with respect to women. And so look, if the Taliban really wants to be recognized and wants to be legitimate, then they’re going to have to act in legitimate ways. China can speak for their conversations and what they’re doing with the Taliban. What I can speak to is our approach to this and that has not changed.
VOA: The next question is related to USAGM. Taliban officials ordered to stop broadcasting out USAGM funded programs on FM and AM transmitters operated by radio and television in Afghanistan. We know that VOA is part of USAGM and we have been broadcasting to Afghanistan for years. What is your response to the Taliban’s decision to curb media freedom and ban our broadcast?
Kirby: Well again, this is a group that says they want legitimacy, and they want normal diplomatic relations with nations around the world, including the United States. Well, one of the things that we stand for in addition to peaceful protests is freedom of the press. And free, reliable, sustainable access by citizens to information and to news, and so this kind of declaration is absolutely contrary to those larger goals that we have not only there but around the world, and we’re going to continue to stand up for freedom of the press and for the right of citizens around the world to be able to access press and news and information.
VOA: President Biden yesterday (Dec. 2, 2022) at the joint conference with Macron, said he’s prepared to talk to President Putin if he decides to end the war. The U.S. and France will continue to support Ukraine. Macron also said he will not force Ukraine to make compromises with Russia, but with the new Republican U.S. Congress coming in and already saying that there’s no blank check to Ukraine, how will the Biden administration move forward to find a peaceful resolution for our solution for Ukraine when the resources might be running short soon?
Kirby: The president is not concerned about bipartisan support for Ukraine going forward. We have had and we expect to continue to have strong support from both sides of the aisle for the kinds of support that Ukraine needs, the kinds of funding support. In fact, we submitted a supplemental request for almost $40 billion, it’s now on the Hill right now. We’ve been talking to members of Congress about what’s in that package and why it’s important. $21 billion of it is dedicated to security assistance of some kind and to help DOD replenish their inventories as well.
And again, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been very, very supportive. We appreciate that. We do expect that that will continue. This argument of a blank check is driving a stake through a straw man. There’s never been a blank check. With every supplemental request, with every package of security assistance, we have been in open communication with members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
And we share, certainly, concerns by members of Congress about accountability. That’s why we have taken measures in the last few months to make sure that we are increasing our ability to keep eyes on, and track as best we can, the material that’s going into Ukraine. It is a war, we need to remember that, but we share those concerns and we do not harbor concerns that there’s going to be some significant drying up of support for Ukraine going forward. The president said we’re going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes and he means that.